ED’S LET­TER

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It’s been 100 years since the end of WW I. Justin Fox pays his re­spects

This month marks the cen­te­nary of the end of World War I. At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, we will com­mem­o­rate the fall­ing si­lent of the guns 100 years ago. The world was never the same again. In many ways, we are still liv­ing in the shadow of that con­fronta­tion and its spawn, World War II.

My grand­fa­ther, Al­bert (Ber­tie) Fox, fought on the Western Front and was wounded at the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele. He, too, was never the same again.

It’s said that no sol­dier ever re­turned from the trenches, not even those who lived. Ber­tie was a gen­tle soul who died in 1959 from the af­ter-ef­fects of shell shock.

Nos­tal­gia, her­itage and bat­tle­field tour­ing are in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar, es­pe­cially in Eu­rope. Not long ago, I was in­vited to join a tour of World War I sites. We vis­ited fa­mous bat­tle­fields along the Western Front, es­pe­cially the Somme in north­ern France. This was the costli­est bat­tle in Bri­tish his­tory. The first day alone re­sulted in more than 50 000 ca­su­al­ties. Troops were or­dered to march slowly in or­dered ranks to­wards the en­emy trenches. Ger­man ma­chine guns scythed them down like wheat. The bat­tle lasted more than four months. For South Africans, the most im­por­tant episode was the tak­ing of Delville Wood in July 1916.

Our coach stopped at the grave­yard so we could pay our re­spects. De­signed by Herbert Baker, the memo­rial is one of the most beau­ti­ful of its kind. All around was peace­ful for­est, re­planted af­ter the war by the South African gov­ern­ment. I thought of the many sol­diers who’d fallen on this hal­lowed ground a cen­tury ago. The South African brigade went into bat­tle on 15 July with 3153 men. At roll call on 21 July there were 780. In 1916, Grandpa Ber­tie Fox set sail from Cape Town and joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the same reg­i­ment as war poet Siegfried Sas­soon. He ar­rived at the Somme in Au­gust, just in time for an at­tack on Ger­man strong­points near Thiep­val. Next, his bat­tal­ion moved to Messines Ridge, Bel­gium. Tun­nels were dug be­low the Ger­man lines. The plan was to det­o­nate a se­ries of mines un­der­neath the en­emy trenches at 03h10 on 7 June 1917, fol­lowed by waves of in­fantry at­tacks.

The mas­sive ex­plo­sions blew the crest off the ridge. Thou­sands of Ger­mans were in­stantly va­por­ised and the Bri­tish at­tack was hailed as a suc­cess. Ber­tie was part of the Fusiliers ad­vance, charg­ing into a scene of ut­ter dev­as­ta­tion.

The sum­mer of 1917 was hell. Known as the Third Bat­tle of Ypres, or Pass­chen­daele (Pas­sion Dale), it came to sym­bol­ise the worst hor­rors of trench war­fare. In­ces­sant rain turned the land to mud and many sol­diers drowned in the sludge. Ber­tie pre­pared for the next as­sault (at Menin Road) un­der con­stant ar­tillery fire. The at­tack map places him in Im­per­fect Trench, near Klein Zille­beke, Ypres, on 20 Septem­ber 1917. That’s when his war came to an end as shells rained down on his po­si­tion. I wanted to find that spot.

We reached the ham­let of Klein Zille­beke. I asked our driver to stop. Ac­cord­ing to the bat­tal­ion map, the corn­field on our left was where my grand­fa­ther’s trench was sit­u­ated on that fate­ful night. I trudged through cloy­ing Flan­ders mud to plant a small re­mem­brance cross in hon­our of the grand­fa­ther I never met. What bru­tal­ity did he wit­ness here?

The Ger­man shell ex­ploded in the dugout, killing most of his men. Ber­tie stag­gered to his feet, but was buried alive by fall­out from the next shell. Sol­diers dug him out five hours later. The Bat­tle of Menin Road (page 14) was his last act in the war. Ber­tie spent the next eight months in hospi­tal in Bri­tain be­ing treated for se­vere shell shock, be­fore be­ing shipped back to Cape Town.

We hon­our all those South Africans who served in the Great War: in the Euro­pean trenches, in Africa and at sea on fate­ful ships such as the SS Mendi. What hor­ror it all was, what fu­til­ity. ‘We will re­mem­ber them.’

Justin Fox

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